A unique friendship fostered in the last year has led two Payson women down the rabbit hole of their imaginations.
In the recesses and folds, they each found a colorful world they thought had long ago dried up. Each encouraged the other’s ‘weirdness’ and what emerged were dreamlike landscapes, papier-mâché sculptures and vibrant watercolor scenes dealing with issues such as cancer, eating disorders, icons, body issues and cultural taboos.
“Short Stories and Visions,” a bright, bold exhibition at Bill’s Custom Frames and Gallery, 910 S. Hohokam Drive, Suite 105 in Tempe, opens Saturday, Sept. 24. and runs through Oct. 22.
You can’t help but notice the work of Elissa Hugens Aleshire and Juliet Wing. With strong lines and a rainbow of colors, the works force a reaction from the viewer — something Aleshire and Wing hoped would occur.
“Art should move you in some way,” Wing said. “Even if you don’t like it, at least it is a response. What you don’t want is no response at all. But you cannot walk by either of our artwork and not stop.”
Each woman will display a few dozen works in a variety of medias in separate rooms at the gallery. As the show’s name implies, each conveys a special story.
How the art came about is a unique tale of happenstance.
Aleshire and Wing met a year ago. A student in Wing’s yoga class at Gila Community College, Aleshire was looking to loosen up.
Neither woman, they would later learn, had touched a brush or pencil in years.
After a few sessions, the two quickly struck up a friendship and were meeting once a week to talk art.
Aleshire showed Wing the convoluted root systems in the sycamore trees and the way the rocks tumbled through the creek on the East Verde and Wing pointed out the tree hollows.
Within no time, the women were sketching together and pushing each other to explore new areas of their creativity. Their contemporary styles meshed well and both were happy to see something besides western art and mountain landscapes traditional to the area art scene.
It was the first time Wing had drawn in six years and 10 years since Aleshire had used watercolors.
For Aleshire, the pressure of completing a masters of fine arts (MFA) program in intermedia at Arizona State University years earlier had buried her artistic drive.
For Wing, family life and work got in the way of her completing an arts program.
But both had art in their blood. From childhood, each had a knack for drawing or painting. Aleshire’s father was an accomplished artist and she easily picked up the trade.
For 20 years, she avidly completed oils and watercolor pieces, but it all came to a screeching halt with her masters work.
“I went into complete withdrawal after the masters,” she said. “Something about the pressure at the end that really threw me into withdrawal — it wasn’t fun any more.”
Meeting Wing loosened something up in Aleshire and art became fun again.
“It was a great lesson for me,” she said. “Everyone should know that they can have big gaps in productivity and come out of it. You can start up again and it is like riding a bike — you may be rusty, but it will come back.”
With Wing’s backing, Aleshire felt less concerned about how others would perceive her art.
Wing also felt liberated to explore new subject areas.
“She (Elissa) taught me to embrace my weirdness,” Wing said, “my feelings and emotions that were way out there, she showed me I should show that because it is a part of me.”
“We reinforce each other that way,” Aleshire said. “If someone criticizes her, we are there to back each other up.”
However, the friendship almost didn’t happen when Wing learned Aleshire was a watercolorist.
“When I met her and she told me she was a watercolorist I thought, ‘oh…watercolors,’ because I am used to looking at watercolors of washed out little farm houses and these little pastel things,” Wing said, “and then I saw her work and I thought ‘Oh my God, look at this color, it is just wonderful the intensity.’ I was very impressed with her work.”
Aleshire’s way of manipulating watercolors created vivid, bright scenes and her love of folk art mixed in a sense of quirkiness and the ability to reclaim the joy of art for its own sake.
This originality only grew when Aleshire began teaching a folk art class at GCC.
“I am surrounded by people who embrace their weirdness and it has made me strong and brave,” she said.
Some of Aleshire’s displays have taken some people aback.
On a recent trip to a doctor in the Valley, Aleshire showed her physician a flyer of a vivid watercolor piece.
“She went, ‘Oh my, that is colorful’ and pushed it away,” she said. “It was almost too much for her to bear. The feedback I have gotten is that most people can’t believe watercolor can be that intense.
“It was an interesting response,” Aleshire added.
“But at least it was a response. It is better than going ‘Oh, okay,’ and putting it away,” Wing said.
Wing hopes her work forces people to stop and scratch their heads.
“Most of what I try to do with my art is to have it be experiential.”
Tree holes and portals capture the viewer’s attention, but they create what is inside them.
“You can interpret them your own sort of way,” she said of the portal motif. “Like going down the rabbit hole, like Alice did to see what other realities there might be down there. These are the special places where we can’t go (physically), we can only use our imagination or sort of guess at.
“I want people to see these paintings and go, ‘Gosh, if I could just get in there and go around that little corner of the painting what do I suppose is there?’”
Wing’s dreamscapes have a surreal feeling that lend them their uniqueness, Aleshire said.
“When things are too pretty or too easy or too familiar you can glance right by it, but if it is something you have never seen before, and I have some things you have never seen before, then it catches your attention,” Wing said.
In addition to the moody dreamscapes, the show includes Aleshire’s work tackling breast cancer and Wing’s remarkable papier-mâché sculpture dealing with eating disorders.
As a result, “Short Stories and Visions” expresses two women’s personal views of the world in a way the world can’t ignore.